The Empty Stage

Of all the lingering images in Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, the one that struck me this time, one which I actually didn’t pick up on the first time I read the novel, was the empty stage. This image is most apparent in the fist chapter of the novel. It occurs first on page 50 of the Broadview edition: “the lawn that already had the desolation of the empty stage.” I bring up this image because I think it is very important in not only understanding the perfomativity of life at Baldry Court, but also understanding Chris.  Jenny describes herself and Kitty as performing certain duties or “roles” for Chris, but it is when he leaves that the stage is empty. This image suggests Chris is also performing for them, which actually makes a lot of sense since Jenny believes him to be the happiest man alive, but he is actually, as suggested by Dr. Anderson, discontented with his life. It appears that life is just one big performance at Baldry court.

The other interesting aspect of this image is Chris as an actor. Thinking about Chris as an actor instead of merely a soldier ties in with our discussion of war last Thursday. Jenny describes Chris leaving for the war as a switching of roles. He walks around the house and the grounds, almost as if saying goodbye to the role he has been playing,  and then “put(s) on his Tommy air” (51). Our footnote helpfully informs us that a Tommy is “A British private soldier” (51). This image is so interesting, and it actually stuck with me for days after reading the passage. I think that war was quite a foreign concept for many of these men, one that probably scared them. I read Chris putting on this air as a sort of resignation to the reality before him. The only way he can face it is by treating it as another role, since he has become used to playing a role anyway. In this moment, Chris becomes “The Soldier.” This is very poignant when thinking about the last lines of the novel where Chris once again becomes “every inch a soldier” (118). Up to this moment, at the end of the novel, Chris has been genuinely happy, not playing a role. When his memory returns he is once again “The Soldier.” This description is so definitive, almost as if when Chris is acting a soldier that is all he is capable of being.

West, Rebecca. The Return of the Soldier. Broadview editions, 2010.